Author: Dr Jenni Douglas
Horse riding and your period, often known as your menstrual cycle. As a woman, for the most part, it’s something that we have for large durations of out life and so understanding the basics of what is happening to us and how we can best manage it to enhance our performance is beneficial.
This article explains horse riding and your period, the practicalities, what’s happening to your hormonal profile, and when in your cycle to focus on competing, training and dieting.
How many ladies feel that their hormone cycles affect the way they ride, exercise or even function effectively?
I have been known to walk into door-frames, put keys in the fridge and completing lose my temper around this time, particularly a few days before and then when my cycle starts, it’s like a light bulb goes off once it has become obvious that my cycle has started and ‘ah-ha’ that was why! The few days before I also struggle to sleep because I am so hot and my skin is more hyper-sensitive, I feel starving and mostly want to be left alone. After over 20 years of cycles, I still am amazed at how emotional, low mood, hungry and irritable I can get, ha ha!
How about you?
Riders report many of the following around their cycles:
I am less co-ordinated, I could eat the entirety of a sweet shop
I feel that I am less patient with my horse, and I just try and just hack during that time
I try to avoid competing when my cycle is present
My confidence drops when my cycle starts and I question my ability to ride
I don’t ride when on my period as I am scared I will leak on the saddle and jodphurs
So, let’s find out what is going on inside our bodies and how you can cycle your training and equestrian endeavours to make our cycle work for us! Of course, we cannot completely stop every month, essentially we do have to live with it, but perhaps we can make it work for us and our riding and off-horse goals!
There are lots of conversations in forums about what to do if your cycle starts when you are out riding or at the yard or competing and my best advice would be preparation. Always carry some tampons and pads in your bag or in the car, even in your tack box. Why? Because it is no fun having an ‘accident’ and it has and will have happened to all of us ladies reading this I am sure. Wear dark jods when you anticipate you will be commencing your cycle because its far easier to mask a leakage than white or beige jods.
White jodphurs are like a horror story for us ladies on our cycles, honestly, preparation and resilience is key in my mind. Ladies, particularly if you are young and reading this, it can be awful to bleed on clothes, other peoples chairs, bedsheets, your white jods, and it can be demoralising and embarrassing, embarrassing but VERY normal!
It has happened at some point to us all, me too, avoid it with very un-cool big lady power pants the more coverage, the less room for error, and you can hide a VPL with a big coat.
OK, so you’re competing in white jods and you don’t want a VPL and a big coat. A tampon of the appropriate strength and a thong pantyliner for the competition moment, would be your best bet I should think, with a spare pair of underwear, jods and pads/tampons etc (especially if competing more than once in a day) back at the lorry. When you are riding a horse there is a lot of friction in the area where you are sitting and so its normal to expect pads to shift, or even to be uncomfortable and rub, that’s why a thin pantyliner and tampon combo have worked best for me. Due to high levels of intra abdominal pressure during riding it is not uncommon for tampons to dislodge, and when leakages can occur which is why a back up pad/liner can always make you feel more assured. I have heard good feedback about diva cups and such like but I do not have first hand experience to comment. Things like this are personal preference, and trial and error, some people find pads uncomfortable to ride in (wings can help keep things in place) but they can add double protection for fear of leaks.
Please comment your tips and tricks in the comments for us all!
Honestly though, menstruation affects us all differently, so please speak with your doctor about the best way to manage your cycle, some ladies like to have more predictability and ability to plan ahead with certain birth control methods and some that reduce or stop bleeding all together which might be an option for you to explore.
Here is the menstrual cycle in a nutshell:
- Your cycle starts at Day 1 and is the timing when an unfertilized egg causes the uterus lining to break down, lasting ~ 28 days; body-wide fluctuations occur during this time, particularly in relation to levels of estrogen, progesterone, and insulin sensitivity.
- When the ovaries release an egg, the follicular phase comes commences (lasting roughly from Day 1 to Day 14), estrogen increases, while progesterone and body temperature stays the same. Then around day 14, ovulation commences, your estrogen levels peak and progesterone starts to increase, you will notice that you will start to feel warmer.
- In the second two weeks, the luteal phase takes over, estrogen declines, progesterone increases and body temperature remains higher than baseline.
- Then you get the ‘period’ in the menstruation cycle, setting the path to start this cycle over again!
The Follicular Phase
The first two weeks of your cycle is the time to focus on effective nutrition, dieting, and potential in the gym and riding performance. Your body is more effective at pain tolerance, force output, and is primed to utilise muscle glycogen to fuel exercise so eat your carbs here! You may wish to up the intensity of your riding and off horse training in these periods and even plan in competitions where possible. It is more important than usual during these two weeks to take on extra carbohydrates particularly if competition in endurance events, basal metabolic rates start to decrease just prior to menstruation and last until ovulation, so more intense workouts coupled with good carbohydrate sources is effective for performance in this phase. If you are aiming for fat loss, the first two weeks are where creating a calorie deficit will be the ‘easiest’ for you, and so if that is your primary goal, it is sensible to ensure these two weeks are appropriately managed so that you have some ‘play room’ in your monthly caloric intake when your metabolic rate increases in the last two weeks making sticking to lower calories more challenging.
You probably feel pretty good at this point in your cycle; during ovulation, your strength levels will still be high, estrogen is high so performance is likely to feel good, but you may be at more risk of injury; remember that clumsy feeling? You might be most strong here but also your neuromuscular control can be negated, so make sure your off horse training is conducted in a safe and efficient manner!
Your metabolism is starting to increase and so you might feel little extra hungry, understand that this increase in metabolism may very well be why. Consider adding a few (!) more calories to your diet to fuel this increase, but get those calories from a balanced mix of proteins, carbs, and fats as your insulin sensitivity is starting to decline, your cycle however, is not an excuse to eat a house! Understanding why your satiety is affected and adapting your diet to cater for this can avoid chocolate binges, your body does not need chocolate, it wants more food!
You are trying to tack up, you are pissed off, the horse is being a numpty, your kids are whiny and its bloody hot today. Ah! Welcome to the luteal phase. Here, body temperature is higher than normal and you may notice a decrease in time to exhaustion. You will retain extra water and likely weigh more. Take note. If you are monitoring your weight as an indictor of fat loss, you may well have lost fat, but the scale stays the same or increases here…..another reason to relax about the numbers on the scale.
Your body although telling you it wants chocolate, relies more heavily on fat as a fuel source, so steady state exercise here can be effective. If you suffer high fatigue and discomfort include lower intensity strength endurance based workouts or yoga as exercise can lessen the severity and duration of PMS symptoms. You may chose to hack rather than have intense riding lessons, or schedule flat lessons rather than jump if you find you are affected here.
Your metabolism will be ~8% higher then normal here and you will feel hungrier, note hungrier, not need chocolate. The chocolate wishes are as a result of low serotonin production, which promotes poor mood and irritability and so the desire for chocolate and ice cream, macaroni cheese, and pizza is because they cause rapid releases in serotonin and give you and instant mood boost and a natural high. Supplementation such as tryptophan or eating food with high amino acid profiles such as turkey, skimmed milk, soy beans or pumpkin seeds can help produce a natural spike in seratonin.
Here you will start to feel more like your normal self. PMS symptoms will subside, your body temperature will return to more normal levels, and your water retention will clear.
You can begin transitioning back to more intense workouts, schedule in your peak competitions perhaps or most important riding lessons and outings with your horses as you move into the follicular phase.
Of course you can do all these activities at any phase of your cycle, but if you are someone that struggles physically, it might just work for you. Personally, I find my emotion is more affected, I feel just as motivated to ride and go to the gym and do not usually notice any changes in performance.
Hydration and your period
Oestrogen and progesterone have an influence on your body’s hydration levels in the lead up to a period. Let us not forget there is also considerable blood loss during your period which means that ensuring that you drink an extra glass or two of water during your menstrual phase will help your body to stabilise hydration levels, importantly keep cramps at bay and prevent fatigue, headaches and fogginess.
As I am sure you have been told before, dehydration is often confused with hunger; dehydration in addition to sweating during exercise, combined blood volume loss, a higher metabolic rate and the desire to eat more chocolate to boost serotonin levels may result in inadvertent weight gain, which has a knock on effect with hormonal balance.
In short, drink your water and then drink some more!
Performance and your period
Aside from the above differences noted, research as of yet does not demonstrate any significant connection or difference in aerobic capacity, anaerobic capacity, aerobic endurance, or muscle strength during the menstrual cycle of female athletes, but research is fairly inconclusive and contrasting.
Ironically peak performance is likely to occur just prior to or during your period as you approach the follicular phase, however this may be very inconvenient during competition environments, which is why the follicular phase may be favoured.
Hormonal profiles and reactions to stages of the menstrual cycle are very individual and so in my opinion, each athlete should be considered as such. You can work with your coach/athlete to ensure plans are suited to how each individual feels and performs, over a period of time tracking performance, mood and other indicators of performance over a select amount of time.
At the end of the day, bleeding is very normal and you should not feel ashamed of the way you feel, of any accidents that happen or feeling like your not doing the best by your horse.
I hope this article raises awareness and gets you to think about how you can make your cycle work for you rather than against you. I would love to hear about your comments and experiences and whether you notice performance differences at differing times during your cycle.
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